The International Olympic Committee has a new headquarters in Lausanne, thanks to 3XN
Words by George Kafka
With its international chapters, iconic symbolism, historic myths and legends, prophets, heroes and disciples, there is a certain religiosity to the Olympic Games. The Olympic ‘movement’, as it’s referred to by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has its headquarters — its Vatican, if you will — in Lausanne, Switzerland, where it relocated from Paris in 1915 in order to maintain the political neutrality of the Games during the First World War. The presence of the IOC is keenly felt in the city perched on the north edge of Lake Geneva. Alongside the Olympic Museum, various departments of the IOC were located in a smattering of offices, now replaced by a single cathedral: the newly christened Olympic House by 3XN Architects.Housing the IOC’s 500 employees in open-plan office spaces, as well as a canteen and, of course, a gym, 3XN’s architecture is one of devotion to pragmatism. ‘Performance’ is a term frequently deployed by Kim Nielsen, co-founder of the Copenhagen-based practice, during the building’s opening tour, used here in the sporting sense where performances are measured, analysed and improved upon. Indeed, such is the emphasis on quantifiable data by Nielsen and the IOC team, when describing the design and performance of the building, that it seems at times as if it were designed more by systems than any human hand. From the parametrically formed glass facade to multiple sustainability certificates to employee wellbeing tracking, this is an athlete’s approach to building; subjective interpretation has no place where numbers decide who wins.
‘The Unity Staircase’ — a series of five circular, oak staircases recalling the Olympic rings — forms the spatial centerpiece. Credit: 2019 International Olympic Committee (IOC) / Adam Mørk
That said, Olympic House’s sustainability credentials — it is LEED Platinum-certified — are impressive. The four-storey building, which reads from the outside as a glass cube with pinched, concave facades, replaces another IOC office, 95% of whose materials have been reused for Olympic House. Similarly, 80% of the construction costs for the project were spent within 50km of the site. The building is cooled by water from Lake Geneva, operates a rainwater collection system and its roof is covered in solar panels. ‘We want to lead by example in the entire Olympic world,’ explains IOC president Thomas Bach. ‘We wanted to show what it means for a sports organisation to be sustainable, and that it’s possible to be sustainable.’
The site itself is located in the heart of Parc Louis Bourget, a popular lakeside public space in Lausanne where a campsite sits adjacent to the new building. In a move to be ‘respectful to the park’, as Nielsen puts it, a sloped and undulating ground-floor roof draws greenery on to the building where plants mingle with a working terrace.
The curved glass facade. Credit: 2019 International Olympic Committee (IOC) / Adam Mørk
Entering through glass security gates, the interior impression is reminiscent of Foster + Partners’ recent Bloomberg London building, another project replete with high-tech sustainability gadgets. A series of five circular, oak staircases — which together 3XN has called ‘The Unity Staircase’ — form the spatial centrepiece to the Olympic House project, and echo Foster’s triple-helix stair at Bloomberg in form and function; the shallow step is designed to encourage informal meetings between the building’s users and visitors (not including any visiting wheel chair using Paralympians). ‘I come too late to our daily briefings because I already have three or four informal meetings with different people on the stairs,’ remarks Bach.
In their allusion to the five rings of the Olympic logo, the staircases are one of a few hackneyed references to Olympic iconography incorporated into the architecture, another being the dove-shaped roof plan. The architectural legacy of the Olympics is, however, barely acknowledged at Olympic House, despite the Games’ significant and often contentious contribution to international stadium architecture with notable examples in Beijing (2008), Montreal (1976) and Mexico City (1968). Aside from a quiet, agora-like assembly point on the ground floor beneath the first staircase, in reference to the Ancient Greek origins of the Games, it’s a project without a sense of history or culture — and lacks any particular distinctive character.
The sloped, green roof covering the projecting ground floor of the building pays respect to the surrounding park. Credit: 2019 International Olympic Committee (IOC) / Adam Mørk
Despite this, Nielsen describes 3XN’s approach to architecture as working from the inside out. ‘It’s about the people that work in the building,’ he explains. ‘It’s about how they feel in there, how they work in there and how they enjoy it.’ This is felt from the first floor upwards, where different departments are organised in ‘neighbourhoods’ with impressive access to outside views and natural light, facilitated by the curved floor plan and central skylight. The parametric form of the facade ensures daylight without overbearing solar gain. These floors are also characterised by a transparency and lack of spatial hierarchy: directors’ offices are also transparent, creating open internal views across floor plates. An exception here is Bach’s own office on the more formal top floor, a corner office decorated with an Olympic flag and photographs of the president alongside global luminaries; among them, the Pope.